Postcolonial Ecuador

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Francisco Pizarro (c.1471-1541) led the Spanish Conquest of the Andes, capitalizing on the aftermath of the Incan Civil War to conquer the already devastated area. His execution of Atahualpa and oppression of Andean peoples began a long and painful Spanish reign.
portrait by Amable Paul-Coutan

After the Incan Civil War, Atahualpa ruled a consolidated Incan Empire, but his subjects were ailing from the mysterious diseases introduced by the Spanish conquistadors, explorers sent to conquer the new world.  These conquistadors, led by Francisco Pizarro, had tried and failed three times to reach the Inca from the coast, turning back as coastal tribes in Ecuador and Colombia resisted.  However, on their fourth attempt, Pizarro’s men found an empire ailing from the bloody civil war and epidemic, or widespread disease.  While it is nearly impossible to know the exact death toll, some archaeologists estimate that up to 95% of the Inca Empire and its subject tribes had died within a few decades. Pizarro sent a small group of men, led by Hernando de Soto (who would years later cross the Mississippi near Memphis, spreading disease through our region as well) to meet with Atahualpa’s army even before they had left Cajamarca.  Meanwhile, the bulk of Pizarro’s men set a trap for the Inca, and in the ensuing battle the Spaniards, armed with steel armor and guns, killed around 1500 Andean warriors without suffering a single casualty.

Young Hernando de Soto played a large role in Pizarro’s campaign to conquer the Inca, and would later use similar oppressive tactics in his journey across North America. These murals by Burton Callicott at the Pink Palace Museum depict de Soto’s battle with the Chickasaw along the banks of the Mississippi River, which he was the first European to see.
Rumiñahui, an Incan general, whose name roughly translates to “stone face” in Kichwa, boldly resisted Spanish colonialization. This statue in Quito is one example of how he has become a symbol of indigenous resistance.
sculptor: Vicente Oswaldo Rivadeneira Armendáriz photo credit:  Marcekijesuspalacios

This crushing defeat ushered in a long era of Spanish Colonial power over the region, which means that Spain was ruling the region from afar and sending Spanish citizens to live there.  This began with Pizarro’s demand of a huge ransom of gold and silver for the life of Atahualpa.  The Incan subjects loyally brought tons of gold to the Spaniards, though Pizarro did not honor his promise of releasing Atahualpa, instead executing him publicly before setting out to conquer even more land.  Severely outgunned by the Spaniards, but appalled at the brutality and dishonesty of the Europeans, the Inca general Rumiñahui, who had retreated to Quito, took drastic measures.  First, he had the people of Quito strip the city of all valuables and hid this massive treasure, the entire wealth of the Empire, somewhere in the region.  Then he evacuated the city and had it burned to the ground.  Though the Spanish would later establish a new capital in its place, the ancient city exists now only in legend.  The location of the treasure has never been discovered, even though the Spaniards tortured Rumiñahui and his companions.  This hidden treasure might be the source of the legend of El Dorado, a “city of gold” hidden somewhere in the heart of South America.

This graph shows how Spanish Colonial powers ran the Encomienda (and similar Hacienda) system. Try the critical thinking questions at the bottom!

The enmity between Indigenous peoples of the region and the Spanish colonizers during those first decades foreshadowed centuries of conflict that in some ways continues today.  The region that would become Ecuador was technically a part of the Viceroyalty of Peru until 1720 when it became the Quito Audiencia.  During this time, the country was about half native, though most indigenous citizens were forced to work in poor conditions on large plantations, known as encomiendas, owned by Spanish nobles.

One exception to this is in the region north of Manta, where escaped slaves from the Guinean coast in Africa were shipwrecked and integrated with the local tribes.  These first Afro-Ecuadorans resisted Spanish authority for nearly a century and even now hold a great deal of political and cultural independence.

Diego Rivera was a Mexican muralist whose work became famous worldwide for its social justice themes. His distinct style inspired Burton Callicott, who painted the murals of de Soto at the Pink Palace. Can you spot some similarities in the artists’ visual styles?
In this painting, Rivera is depicting the encomienda system. What does this image show you about society at that time? Who was in charge? How were others treated?

The Spanish ruled over Ecuador for almost 300 years, using forced labor of locals to extract exotic goods and precious metals from the landscape and ship them back to Europe via Guayaquil, which at the time was South America’s biggest shipbuilding city.  However, following Napoleon’s conquest of Spain, Spanish citizens of Quito declared the region independent.  This first cry for independence in 1809 was quickly crushed by the Spanish forces stationed in the Viceroyalty of Peru, but the tide of Latin American independence would not easily be quelled. 

Here you can see Volcan Pichincha towering over Quito’s colonial cathedral. It was here that
Simón Bolívar helped Ecuador gain its independence from Spain.
photo credit: Eric Martin

Over the next ten years, the desire for independence had swept through South America, and a group of Ecuadorans appealed for help to Simon Bolivar in Venezuela and Jose de San Martin in Argentina, who had just won independence in their own nations.  With these powerful allies, the Ecuadorans were able to rally and in 1822, under Antonio de Sucre, the Ecuadorans finally ousted the Spaniards from the region at the Battle of Pichincha, high on the slopes of a volcano next to Quito (see Pichincha photo). 


Simón Bolívar of Venezuela helped fuel and lead independence movements throughout South America in the 1800s.

This allowed Ecuador to be free of Spanish rule, but in no way ended the unrest that had plagued the nation.  For years, it would be plagued by power struggles of many shapes and sizes.  At first, Ecuador was part of Gran Columbia, the nation Bolivar established across Northern South America, though by 1830 it would secede to become the Republic of Ecuador.  While this spared them Gran Columbia’s incessant border skirmishes with Peru by setting up a buffer state, it was a buffer state filled with internal strife.  In the following decades, countless coups, juntas, and revolts kept the nation basically in a state of anarchy.  It wasn’t until 1860 that the wars began to die down, but even then, the nation was gripped by an intense rivalry between conservatives and liberals. 

This polarizing rivalry resulted in several dictatorial party leaders who resorted to coups to regain power from each other.  In 1925, one of these coups managed to centralize the politics and economy of Ecuador by placing nearly all material assets, including artifacts, in the hands of the Central Bank rather than in collections of independent museums.  It is this centralized structure that allowed Jose Maria Velasco Ibarra to rise to power.  Ibarra would serve five presidential terms, though he would only see one of them to completion, which shows the tumultuous nature of Ecuador at that time.  Despite the complicated litany of regimes, Ecuador’s economy and population continued to grow through the early and mid-1900s, becoming key exporters of bananas, coffee, and oil.

This is a 50,000 Sucre note, used as the Sucre lost its value towards the end of the 1900’s. In 1999, President Mahuad replaced the Sucre with the US Dollar, but this ended up driving the economy even further into a depression and inciting unrest across Ecuador

However, the protracted chaos of changing parties, land disputes with Peru, and inequality between the urban elites and rural majority eventually took its toll.  In the 1990’s the Ecuadoran economy began to crash, and its local currency, the Sucre, suffered from inflation and became virtually worthless.  In 1999, Mahuad, the president of Ecuador, decreed that the Sucre be replaced with the U.S. Dollar.  Though this policy would eventually stabilize the economy, it was incredibly unpopular.  In addition to hurting national pride, this change made many urban elites who had already invested in dollars more wealthy, while rural populations struggled to pay conversion costs for the small sums of Sucres that they had.

The next year, a group called the CONAIE (Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador) organized an uprising that occupied the capital and forced the president to flee.  CONAIE and its leaders accused the government of valuing foreign interests, like those of the Texaco Oil Company, over the well-being of its own citizens (see journal #8).  Though the coup of 2000 was quelled and the regimes since have still been plagued by corruption, it marks a change in the political voice of Indigenous groups in Ecuador, who are beginning to be heard more and more in their demands for justice and economic equality. 

Review the terms from this week’s journal with these printable vocab cards:

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